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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Goodwin's Williamsburg

W.A.R. Goodwin
We are sometimes tempted to believe that artists have a monopoly upon visionary images. But not all images are made with marks on paper or canvas. Some, seen in the mind's eye of their creator, take tangible, concrete shape in real life. Architects, for instance, get to see their visual images transferred first to paper then to great buildings. In Nelson County, Virginia, near the town of Norwood, just four years after the surrender of Lee and the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse, a child named for his father, William Goodwin, was born.  He was the son of a Confederate Army Captain. Raised in poverty in the Virginia hill country, William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin grew up to become an Episcopal minister and history scholar. In 1903, he was assigned to become rector of the Bruton Parish church in the small, backwater town of Williamsburg, Virginia.

It was not a choice assignment.  The church itself was becoming dilapidated, the town was, in many cases, already well passed that, and growing ever more so with each passing day. As the pastor took his customary evening stroll, he encountered images from the past, not unlike those of an artist, as the ghosts of the town's illustrious vintage days followed him everywhere. It had been 123 years since the state government of Virginia had pulled up stakes and moved to Richmond. The intervening years, the war, poverty, the Victorian era, modernization, had all left their mark on what had once been a collective masterpiece of Colonial architecture. Dr. Goodwin's vision was to stop history in its tracks, turn back its hands of time, and see the town restored to its quaint, colonial splendor.
The old Bruton Parish Church before restoration

He started with his own backyard, the church. Through his own hard work, good humor, and considerable powers of persuasion, he set about the raising of the funds to see the worshiping place of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and George Washington returned to it's colonial state. But just as he was getting up a head of steam, he was transferred to Rochester, New York, for fifteen long years. When he had the good fortune to return as rector of Bruton Parrish in 1923, he found his worst nightmares of twenty years earlier had taken shape. The town had become an eyesore, utility poles marched up the middle of the main street, the old courthouse had become a "filling station" sported the sign "Toot-an-cum-in" (King Tut's tomb had just been unearthed in Egypt). There were modern concrete streets, sidewalks, street lights, while next to them, structural decay was everywhere. Many of the colonial era homes had simply vanished. A new school had been built where once stood the Governor's Palace. Fifteen years of the twentieth century and the Model T had done more to rip apart the tattered fabric of Colonial Williamsburg than had the whole century before. If his vision was to be realized, it had to happen fast.

Williamsburg's reconstructed Governor's Palace (rear). The site had once been that of
the town's high school, which was demolished.
Goodwin first went to one source of the problem, Henry Ford himself, who was known to be a history buff and one of the few men in the country wealthy enough to undertake such a project.  He was rebuffed by form letters and a newspaper headline: "HENRY FORD ASKED TO BUY ANCIENT VIRGINIA TOWN!" Then, in 1924, almost by accident, Goodwin spoke at a banquet in New York attended by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. One thing led to another and a few months later, Goodwin hosted the multimillionaire for a tour of the town, asking only for the means to buy one particularly important home in imminent danger of destruction, the Ludwell-Paradise House. It didn't happen. It was two more long years before, in 1926, John D. wrote the first check. The house was saved, and during the next twelve years, more checks followed, supporting an army of archaeologists, carpenters, masons, historians, decorators, and other miscellaneous restorationists.

A 1930s era postcard of Williamsburg's Capitol Building
Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin died in 1939, just days before the official kickoff of the Second World War, which effectively halted the restoration and reconstruction efforts for the duration. After the war, Rockefeller continued to support the project, and even lived nearby for the next twenty years until his death in 1960. Today, Colonial Williamsburg is a living, breathing work of art on a scale almost unimaginable at the turn of the century when Goodwin first glimpsed a dreaded future and opted for a vision of the past instead. Today, the restored area has grown to some 150 acres and nearly 85% of the original town. Along with similar efforts in neighboring Jamestown and Yorktown, a four-lane parkway that literally tunnels under the town connects the three, Carter's Grove plantation, and related tourist facilities to support the modern day visitor wishing to step back 250 years. The complex very clearly stands as one of the greatest works of art ever conceived and executed here or anywhere else in the world. And the recreative genius behind it all, Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, deserves the title "artist" no less than Wright, Rodin, or Picasso.
Restored homes, Williamsburg today.


  1. Great post. I have recently been getting into history. I have been reading about the Carter’s Grove plantation and I am dying to see it in person. Williamsburg, Virginia has a ton of historical homes. I plan to take a trip in the summer. I can't wait! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Lauren--

    We've been there two or three times and Carter's Grove is an excellent side trip. Be sure to allow at least half a day there. The capitol, and the Governor's Palace are also must-see items. Be sure to have at least one meal at one of the colonial taverns. They're all good, but prices do vary so check the "bill of fare." If you have the time, be sure to spend at day at the Jamestown ruins and reconstruction, as well as Yorktown (another day at least). After all that history, the kids will enjoy Busch's Old Country amusement park near Carter's Grove as well.

  3. Thanks a lot Jim. I will definitely check these out especially the Jamestown ruins and reconstruction. The colonial taverns sound like a good time. Thanks so much for the great tips and advice!